Sunday, November 02, 2008

Feed Forward

Gitansh Malik
Saket Sanganeria

Feedback is one of the most effective tools for managers. The importance of feedback in the personal and professional development of an individual is widely known and accepted. In strict business sense all managers desire a status check and wish to know how well they are doing. Even in non-business situations there is an inherent desire to learn about which actions went right and those that went wrong. For long, successful leaders and top managers have relied on giving and taking feedback to improve work performance and enable personal growth.

The feedback process has also some inherent limitations. Firstly, feedback is primarily dependent on the performance in the past. This is not very motivating in case the taker has not performed well before. Feedback is also not particularly valid if there is any change in work situation or job specifications. Second limitation of feedback is that only selected few can contribute. People who are directly involved in the job or have work interdependency can only offer feedback to the taker. Thirdly, feedback is majorly influenced by recency effect. This makes the entire mechanism incomplete and less effective.

In today’s world, certain organizational practices further aggravate the disadvantages of feedback. In most organizations feedback flows down the ladder, from top management to lower levels. This unidirectional flow of feedback is a major roadblock. Another disadvantage is that feedback primarily focuses on weaknesses of the individual. It is used to find what went wrong and how it could be corrected. This could get judgmental and spoil the senior-junior work relationship.

Rater’s inexperience also makes feedback less effective. The process aims at the development of the person through the views of others. If the person giving the feedback is not competent enough, the utility of the whole process becomes questionable. It’s also not just a matter of expertise, knowledge or competence, but feedback is greatly affected by the importance and effort given to the process by both the sides. The boss may be busy with other commitments and would not have properly evaluated the performance of the individual.
A good feedback can improve results and strengthen working relationships. Above all, good feedback can lead to personal growth of the manager. However, even after the advent of 360-degree feedback and other mechanisms, not many managers are open in giving and taking feedback. The underlying problem is that even though a manager may desperate to get feedback from his team, he is not ready to face any criticism.
Manager: “What did I do wrong?”
Boss: “You were wrong in these aspects…..”
Till today, feedback is mostly aimed to know what was done wrong. There is a negative connotation attached to it. A manager who has done very well in the past may not take poor feedback very well. The situation is further grave for some senior leaders who would refuse to accept blind spots in their behaviour. The manager who gives feedback is equally troubled to depict the clear picture. He could be put off giving feedback because it makes him uncomfortable, or that he wants to avoid confrontation.

The way ahead – Feedforward
The ultimate objective of feedback is to achieve a desired change or to reinforce a particular behaviour. The main concentration is on achieving the required behaviour, skill and actions to reach an objective. Since, business is all about achieving the objective in the best possible manner, Feedforward is the way ahead. Not only there is a need to concentrate on correcting past actions, but to also try and shape up the future course of manager’s actions. And Feedforward does exactly that. Feedforward tries to get the correct results in the very first attempt. Feedforward utilises the experience, expertise and knowledge of others to help the taker do things right in his first time.

Meaning: Feedforward means to take suggestions for the future that might help the person achieve positive change in their selected behaviour. Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past.

Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world's top executive coaches and the author of 18 books on leadership, is the pioneer to introduce the concept of Feedforward. After much research and experience Marshall feels that Feedforward is an effective tool and its suggestions can “help someone as much as they can”.
Manager: “Which is the best way to do it”?
Boss: “The best way to do this would be to…..”.
Why Feedforward is better
  • Bi-directional – Feedforward can move down the ladder in an organisation and vice versa. This is useful for managers to seek suggestions from their subordinates, who otherwise fear negative feedback.
  • Focus on positives not negatives – Feedforward suggestions are aimed to know the best way to do a job. It focuses on what is the right and not wrong. This makes it unique and better than feedback.
  •  Future oriented – Feedforward focuses on what lies in future. It does not consider what has happened in the past. This is particularly motivating for a manager who does not enjoy any good performance in the past.
  • Non-Judgemental – Feedforward does not get personal. It is common for all takers. The rater can also give suggestions without any personal bias against the taker.
  • Everyone can contribute – Unlike feedback which can be provided only by small number of people, Feedforward can come from anyone who is experienced with the job. This also helps to strengthens work relationship in the organisation.
  • More enjoyable – Taking and giving Feedforward suggestions is less stressful than feedback. The rater does not have to bother about how the other person is feeling about his suggestions. Since it deals with only positive elements, it is more fun.
Feedforward is consciously or sub-consciously used is many non-business situations. In sports, the coach makes the team focus on ‘the final goal’ and not the strengths and weaknesses of the side. Many popular coaches make their team envision perfect finish to a match. These coaches use Feedforward to keep the players motivated and make them play well. Feedforward can also be seen in parenting. Most parents, in the formative years of their child, spend time telling ‘what a good boy should be doing’. They create a vision of a well mannered child in their child’s mind and persuade him to be like that.
Makes you a better leader
Leadership is quite different from the day to day job of all the employees in an organization. There are several operational and behavioural issues attached to the responsibility and authority that is unique to top level management personnel. Leaders are highly successful people. Success brings with it a common resistance towards negative judgement. Any inconsistency with the way a person sees himself gives rise to aversion. Accepting and utilising negative feedback needs a deep understanding of oneself, a great zeal for personal development and acceptance of one’s own limitations. While there is no dearth of the first two but the difficulty arises when success collides with the limitations of a person. Feedforward suits these situations; it provides ideas for future development and goal achievement with general acceptance.

It is fair to assume that a manager is responsible for getting work out of his subordinates. This requires every manager to inspire and motivate and develop his subordinates. It’s the manager who takes up the responsibility of achieving the goals. In this pursuit he needs the contribution of everyone working with him and Feedforward can serve as a very effective tool here.

As mentioned before, Feedforward concentrates on positive future, and not a failed past. This idea of better future in the very first instance can help reduce many mistakes. It opens new gates and provides a positive direction. Any discussion about what is right is far more motivating than what is wrong.

Feedforward is not a personal critique. It is performance driven and does not depend on the person. On the other hand, feedback is more often than not considered a personal attack. It leaves the taker in a state of discomfort. Although, constructive feedback is not to be taken personally, but often it is. Feedforward is void of such disadvantage.

Feedforward covers all aspects of feedback. If feedback makes an attempt to forego something wrong, Feedforward does it as well. And Feedforward does it without humiliating or embarrassing the individual. Feedforward is also much faster than feedback. Since it focuses on solutions, one does not need to first find the problem and then its solution. This also makes it more efficient. So, logically Feedforward should replace feedback in few years time.
Giving and taking Feedforward can be also made a group exercise. This makes it fun and thus participants learn more. There is no need to divert attention to answer specific questions but focus entirely on gathering maximum suggestions.
Marshall Goldsmith in his book ‘What got you here, won’t get you there’ has entailed how senior leaders are reluctant to change their behaviour. He concludes that more successful people are aware that the qualities which brought them to this level will not necessarily be helpful to climb the next level. He stresses that for senior leaders to improve their behaviour, use of Feedforward is very effective.

Feedforward should not be looked as a substitute of feedback. We do not intend to say that feedback should be abandoned. It has helped managers in the past and would continue to do so. We would contend that in some business scenario feedforward can be more effective than other traditional.

Feedforward involves mentorship, guidance, suggestions and sharing personal experience and knowledge. Receiving positive suggestions and useful insights is taken positively by majority of the people. However, as in feedback the competence of the person giving suggestions is the most critical factor in generating the desired output. The organization needs to ensure that only the most sought after and experienced person provides Feedforward to others. Also, the person giving suggestions should enjoy high credibility in the organisation. In the absence of credibility and trust, the taker may never actually implement any suggestions.

Feedforward is an emerging tool and much study and research is still required. But it is safe to conclude that promoting Feedforward culture in the organisation would inculcate an atmosphere of coordination, interdependence, team work and would thus generate and environment of trust and continuous improvement in the organisation.


Sayan said...

Feedforward is a good concept, and I guess it more or less coincides with designing a development plan for an employee, going forward. But again, it has to be used in conjunction with a robust feedback process, and the entire discussion has to start from what was expected from the employee, how he has performed and what the expectations would be from him for the next year, taking into account his potential and development needs. In other words, both of them are part of a whole process of effective PMS in an organization.

360 degree feedback system said...

360 degree feedback appraisal helps the organisation to have better understanding of the competitive advantage and disadvantages of the current manpower resources, 360 degree feedback system.

Margaret Wilson said...

360 degree feedback Basically the term 360 degrees implies that a circle of the raters to snatch the people or surrounding around the target that employee providing an anonymous feedback to educate people about 360 degrees.